Mr Olli Rehn
Member of the European Commission, responsible for Enlargement
"Update on the Enlargement"
Committee of Regions plenary session
Brussels, 11 October 2006
Honourable Members of the Committee on Regions,
It is with great pleasure that I accepted your invitation to address the plenary of your Committee and update you on matters related to enlargement.
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Two weeks ago, the Commission issued its report on the Bulgarian and Romanian accessions. As you know, the Commission has indicated that both countries have demonstrated their readiness to join the EU on 1 January 2007. This has been a historic achievement by Bulgaria and Romania. The key to their success was a combination of their own efforts with the strong encouragement and support of the Union.
Over the past two years in particular, Bulgaria and Romania have responded strongly to our system of conditionality, which has been even more rigorous than the one applied in the past. This has resulted in a remarkable transformation, with reforms in several sectors peaking over the past 3-4 months. The strategy we devised last May has worked well.
At the same time, in a limited number of areas, though important progress has been made, we need to see further progress in the months leading up to accession and beyond. Consequently, the report also spells out accompanying measures, provided for by the acquis and the Accession Treaty, which the Commission will initiate upon accession, unless the remaining problems have been remedied. The main areas concerned are judicial reform, the fight against corruption, guarantees for the proper management of agricultural and structural funds and food safety.
I am confident that Bulgaria and Romania will enrich the Union and we have the necessary safeguards to ensure the proper functioning of EU policies and institutions. The interests of the EU and its citizens can be assured and EU taxpayers' money protected. The suggested accompanying measures will also ensure the continuity and irreversibility of the reforms in the two countries.
Bulgaria's and Romania's accession is an historic moment for the Union as well, as it completes its fifth enlargement.
The 2004 enlargement - like others before it - has proved to be a great success. It has confirmed that enlarging the Union - if carefully managed - produces a win-win situation for both the existing and the acceding Member States. Enlargement contributes to expanding and strengthening the area of peace, stability, democracy and growing prosperity in our continent; it stimulates economic growth and re-enforces the role and influence of the European Union in the world.
The European Council decided to hold a debate on enlargement in 2006. The Commission welcomes this decision. It is indeed important to 'ensure in the future that the Union is able to function politically, financially and institutionally as it enlarges, and to further deepen Europe's common project'. Our contribution to this debate will be provided in the autumn enlargement package, due on 8 November. In it, the Commission will also address the issue of absorption capacity.
There are two main dimensions in absorption capacity. First, the likely impact of enlargement on the EU institutions, policies and budget. Second, the need for candidate countries to prepare rigorously. The Commission will outline a method to make sure that absorption capacity is duly taken into account at each key stage of the enlargement process.
Absorption capacity is not an additional condition for countries to join. Candidates already need to fulfil the demanding Copenhagen criteria and by doing that they facilitate their smooth integration into the Union. The success with the 2004 enlargement is largely due to their preparation efforts and to the rigorous monitoring by the Commission. With the current enlargement countries we have developed this rigorous approach even further.
The enlargement debate needs to be seen in its current context. The EU has set itself the goal of coming to terms with institutional issues and the mid-term review of the financial perspective by 2008-2009. No new accession is envisaged before then. There will be no simultaneous entry of a large group of countries in the foreseeable future. Turkey's accession process is a long term effort.
The Commission Enlargement Paper will also touch upon the challenge of communicating enlargement. Communication is most effective when delivered at the closest level possible to the audience. The Commission will use all the means at its disposal to communicate enlargement. But, we all know that the key role is with Member States, candidate countries and, equally importantly, the regional and local authorities. Beyond communication, we must improve mutual understanding between member and candidate states. The Commission will continue to promote civil society dialogue, in particular with Turkey.
Allow me now to elaborate briefly on our present enlargement agenda, which covers the Western Balkans and Turkey. Last June the European Council reaffirmed we will honour existing commitments with respect to enlargement.
Accession negotiations with Croatia and Turkey were opened in October 2005 and have been running smoothly. Their first stage, the so-called 'screening' will have been completed for all negotiation chapters by the end of this month. So far one chapter has been negotiated and provisionally closed for both countries.
The EU has repeatedly reaffirmed at the highest level its commitment for eventual EU membership of all Western Balkan countries, once they fulfil established criteria and conditions.
Concrete evidence of this commitment are the steps made during the last year: opening of accession negotiations with Croatia, candidacy of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, signing of Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Albania, opening of negotiations for such agreements with Serbia-Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and most recently with Montenegro, following its independence.
The future of the Western Balkans, including their European future, is of course principally in the hands of its own peoples and governments.
Kosovo is a key interest for the EU, as it is vital to the stability of a region which has a European perspective. We support Martti Ahtisaari's efforts to find a viable and sustainable solution for Kosovo by the end of 2006. The status process must not be jeopardised.
We are preparing for an increased EU role in Kosovo as part of the future international presence. It will be asked safeguard the settlement provisions, ensure security and respect for the rule of law. Furthermore, we will try to help develop economic opportunity for all communities. We count on International Financial Institutions and other donors to share the financial burden with us. A high-level donors conference will be organised in due time to find the means to respond to some of Kosovo's post status needs.
The Commission will spare no effort to support Serbia in meeting the important challenges it is presently facing and in keeping on track on the road of democracy and Europe. At the same time, full cooperation with ICTY by all countries concerned remains a key conditionality of our policy towards the region. Negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Belgrade had to be put on hold last May due to lack of such cooperation. They will be resumed as soon as such cooperation is achieved. Unfortunately, Ms Del Ponte could not report sufficient progress on this matter at our recent meeting.
We have all welcomed the peaceful holding of the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina; these were conducted generally in line with international standards. It is now important that the nationalist rhetorics that marked the pre-election period be left behind and that the newly elected political leaders step up their efforts for concrete results on the reform agenda. In particular reforms in the areas of police, public broadcasting and public administration as well as continued cooperation with the ICTY are necessary to ensure the successful conclusion of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.
Last January the Commission adopted a Communication prescribing concrete, practical measures to render the region's European perspective more tangible to the citizen: visa facilitation, regional trade, scholarships and other people-to-people contacts. Implementation of this agenda, which was endorsed by the Council as well as by the Salzburg EU-Western Balkans meeting, has started.
In particular, the Council is presently discussing our mandate proposals for visa facilitation and readmission agreements with the countries of the region. I am optimistic these mandates will be adopted, allowing for negotiation and conclusion of the agreements as soon as possible.
I read with interest the excellent draft opinion on our Communication, prepared by Mr.Schausberger, which I understand you will be adopting today. I am pleased to note that, with respect to our policy towards the Western Balkans, we are on the same wavelength, both on the overall political approach and on the importance of the sub-state regional dimension and of involving the respective actors in our policies and processes. We will of course reflect and respond to your specific recommendations. Let me also add our highest appreciation for the meeting you organised last year in Prishtina.
Integrating Turkey into the European Union is of mutual benefit. The European Union needs, in its own interest, a democratic, stable and prosperous Turkey. Turkey's strategic role in the handling of geopolitical issues was once again illustrated by their participation in the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. It is on these premises that, in line with our commitments, we opened accession negotiations last October, once we had assessed Turkey had sufficiently respected the Copenhagen political criteria.
However, the challenge of EU accession calls for a wide and thorough reform process in Turkey. Progress in the negotiations, depends not only on progress in the different chapters of the acquis, but first and foremost on the pace of reforms, notably of those related to the political criteria.
Progress in the accession negotiations also depends on Turkey honouring its obligations under the Association Agreement and its Additional Protocol, which extends the Agreement's application to the ten new Member States.
This means that Turkey should open its ports to vessels under flag of all Member States, including the Republic of Cyprus.
To sum up, it is in our mutual interest that Turkey continues its process of political, economic and social transformation in view of joining the EU. It is therefore all the more important that it takes new initiatives and achieves tangible progress before the Commission's report is presented on 8 November. As I stressed last week in Ankara, we have a common goal to counter the pessimists and avoid a train crash.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would not want to conclude my intervention without stressing the importance that the Commission and I personally attach to the work of the Committee of Regions and to the close cooperation between our two Institutions. This is valid in general, but also particularly in the area of my remit. In the Balkans, as well as in Turkey, strengthening the tissue of societies below the state level is of particular significance for consolidating democracy achieving reconciliation and addressing constructively ethnic diversity within a European framework. In this, the contribution of your Committee can be of the highest value.